Sherlock and John become the Holmes and Watson of the classic Conan Doyle stories. Written as a special one-off to ease the wait between Series 3 and 4 (for that we can blame the continuing success of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, those talented bastards), 'The Abominable Bride' is a very tongue-in-cheek and meta exploration of Sherlock Holmes, both as a character and as a story. But does it deliver or become lost?
The Victorian-era setting is great fun from the get go. The modern Sherlock's distinct visual styles are transported to the new (old?) setting, right down to the appearance of text on the screen. The characters are well dressed up in their Victorian trappings, from Watson's moustache or Lestrade's mutton chops to the famous Sherlock hat itself. For the first half of the episode, the show pokes a lot of fun at itself and at this style, whilst remaining charming and entertaining. Watson's published stories allow for plenty of self-deprecating jokes and character observations, making this episode the most meta it's ever been. Some may argue too meta, but for a special one-off I thought the humour was well placed. For most of its run, the case of the Abominable Bride herself is compelling, with no obvious non-supernatural solution. Combined with the humorous charm of the episode, the case of the Abominable Bride would have been more than enough for the special, a one-off treat to make the wait for Series 4 a bit less painful.
But of course, this is Sherlock, and not so easily contained. We see the hints very early on that there is more to this case than just that of the bride, provided at first through little slips from Holmes and by the inherent similarity of the Bride's death to Jim Moriarty's in Series 2. It doesn't take long for the episode to sharply swerve from subtlety and suddenly Sherlock wakes up on the plane from the Series 3 finale. Yes, it was all part of the Mind Palace, which we also learned about in Series 3, and Sherlock's internal attempt to determine if Moriarty could really have survived. Your opinion on the episode from here on most probably depends on your investment in this story.
Andrew Scott's reappearance in this episode was a wonderful reminder of the dark humour and menace he brings to the role, and his strange but electric chemistry with Sherlock. He is given free reign here, to be as insane and menacing as he wants. Existing solely in Sherlock's head, he is at his most twisted and chews the scenery with such relish that its hard to believe there's anywhere left to perform. The recurring question of “how did he do it” brings a deep chill, making Moriarty some kind of spectre looming over Sherlock. It's this phantom that confronts Sherlock in his Mind Palace, shattering his calm space and debunking his theories as he goes. This culminates in an internal battle that evokes the classic finale of Holmes and Moriarty's story in the original tales, set beneath the raging waters of the Reichenbach Falls.
The story of the Abominable Bride loses focus here and, even as a fan of Moriarty's story, it is quite jarring. We return to the 'real' world of Sherlock, just as Holmes and Watson have failed to protect their client's husband, and he seems to on the brink of a revelation in the case. It's frustrating to be pulled out so suddenly, and the show takes its time getting back to that place. In fact, it turns out to be Mary Watson who pretty much solves the mystery off-screen. The resolution of how the bride cheated death almost holds water, up until the spectre of Moriarty pops up in a wedding dress and shoots the theory full of holes. It is disappointing to leave the case unresolved, instead giving up the attention to Moriarty, and requires a good deal of the episode rendered unimportant.
The bride's resolution will prove to be divisive amongst viewers. It must be said, that for its missteps, that the story was well-intentioned as a pro-feminist piece and it is always important to keep trying. Mycroft and Sherlock both agree that the women are right and the men deserve to lose this war. Watson is made ugly when he is so casually sexist to both his wife and his servant, contrasted in the present day where he is quick to admit she takes him home, not the other way around. But it was a decision in poor taste to portray the crusading women as chanting cultists in purple robes and hoods that were far too reminiscent of the KKK's own garb, carrying out murder. It's great that Sherlock tried to tackle the issue and went out of its way to make sure the woman of the story were presented as in the right, but the execution was lacking and runs the risk of muddling the message.
The episode eventually leaves us with the confirmation that, yes, Moriarty is dead. It's a little anti-climatic, considering how Series 3 ended and how the episode build up the question of how he survived. Of course he didn't. He blew his own brains out. And to be fair, if he had survived, it would push the suspense of disbelief too far. We've already had Sherlock fake his own death, for Moriarty to do the same, from the same confrontation, would be simply too much.
Which leads me to a worry with the series as a whole. Moriarty's relatively early death may have written the show into a corner. The first two series are constructed around Sherlock's battle with his nemesis, a man both his equal and opposite. The story was wrapped up in a satisfying way with Series 2 and that could have been the end of it. But the show kept going. Series 3 needed a new villain and although Lars Mikkelsen did a terrific job, it lacked the same focus that Sherlock and Moriarty's battle had. And now Moriarty is back, but not really. It's the problem of having to keep going after the use of your main villain, a problem that has dragged down many shows (Here's looking at you, Supernatural Season 6-onwards). Not to say I didn't enjoy Series 3 or 'The Abominable Bride', but the show is stuck wanting to keep Moriarty in the story, whilst having already killed him off. I enjoyed him as a phantom in Sherlock's mind last series, after he was shot by Mary, but I do wonder how far they can take this character now before it becomes forced.
'The Abominable Bride' is an entertaining hour and a half, with the twists and turns familiar to any Sherlock viewer. The Victorian-era parts are mostly wonderful fun and the mystery of Sherlock's deceased nemesis is a compelling one, as long as you are engaged with it. The balance is a tricky one and definitely sways too far at times, but mostly hits the mark, with some terrific performances from our main cast and some great setpieces. It's going to be a long wait until Series 4. This is what happens when you decide to cast your show with terrific and insanely busy actors. Which of course is why every episode is worth the wait.